Lowered Expectations: Katai is Fired Up / by Harrison Crow

By Harrison Crow (@harrison_crow)

You may or may not remember that I like to write about how shots from good locations don’t become goals. This was, once upon a time, a weekly feature here. The powers that be begged me to come and start writing again, so here we are back again.

Those of you who may not be familiar with this column of mine, please, allow me to introduce to you the idea of expected goals. It’s the probability a given shot attempt would be scored, taking into account specific criteria captured at the time of the shot.

In this column we like to talk about what the expected goals model sees, and also what it doesn’t, when arriving at an xG number. The theme of this column is to take the five highest probability shots from open play (i.e. excluding free kicks and set pieces) from the previous week that didn’t end with the ball in the back of the net.

It also often turns into me decrying terrible crosses into the box that the model likes but are in actuality terrible chances that are awful and stupid and should be outlawed. Okay, well... let’s get started!

#5 - Nemanja Nikolic, Chicago Fire, 0.479 xG
Assisted by: Aleksandar Katai
Goalkeeper: Eloy Room
Result: Missed

Under the department for record keeping it should be noted that Aleksandar Katai is considered to have made a pass here. I’m not sure I would have considered it a pass at first glance, but the more and more I watch this I’m really stunned at how elegant the delivery is from him, intended or not. Where the ball ends up, the pace, and that it nearly hits Nikolic in stride is kind of incredible.

As for Nikolic’s part, I can’t tell what he’s trying for, but obviously it doesn’t work and I’m sure he’d probably admit he wish he did something different, or at bare minimum tweak some mechanics here.

The most important part of this piece really is how Nikolic gets himself in position to create the shot. It’s a smart run by Nikolic prior to the pass to get himself in such a dangerous spot. He has great position to create an opportunity, which is just as important as the ability to direct the shot on frame.

Let’s return for a moment and talk about Aleksandar Katai.

I really love how Kati creates a bit of space, which allows time for Nikolic to find the pocket for his run towards goal. The timing between the two is excellent, and this is exactly one of the reasons they’ve amassed such a huge level of expected goals this year.

Katai is presently tied for 39th in Major League Soccer with 32 key passes this season, yet stands sixth in expected assists. That’s because his key passes lead to much higher quality shots - among players with more than 15 key passes, Katai’s average xA of 0.24 is tops in the league. His rank in expected assists is largely due to moments like this between he and Nikolic (and CJ Sapong) in 2019.

Comparing his 2018 and 2019 seasons shows he’s already accrued more expected assists than last season and he’s making good ground and will probably overtake his expected goal numbers as well.


If you take a look at his shot creation map, it gives us an idea why.

In 2018, the shots from Katai’s key passes were more concentrated in the center, with most taking place just short of 8 yards. But in 2019 he has helped create seven shots inside the six yard box. Those seven shots alone account for a major part of his improvement in 2019.

Looking at from where he’s providing that service from helps to further explain why he’s been able to create such higher quality shots.

He has twice as many key passes originating inside the 18 yard box this year than he did last year. We see a fair amount of them right around the six yard box, as he has beaten multiple defenders and provided a cutback pass for that high value shot.

It’s not just Katai alone though. Nikolic and Katai have synced up seven times this season to create shots, with the average leverage of each shot created between the duo being worth nearly half a goal (0.504). That’s better than any other duo in the league (minimum of five shots created together) and better than the next squad by almost double. Next up? CJ Sapong and Katai at nine shots, worth over a quarter of a goal (0.292) per shot.

Nemanja NikolicAleksandar Katai73.5302880.504327
C.J. SapongAleksandar Katai92.6328460.292538
Brian WhiteKaku71.9611660.280167
Krisztian NemethGerso82.1362760.267035
Uriel AntunaZlatan Ibrahimovic92.3932930.265921
Raul RuidiazBrad Smith71.8458730.263696
Dominique BadjiMichael Barrios61.5760660.262678
Carlos VelaDiego Rossi133.2873150.25287
Carlos VelaMark-Anthony Kaye112.73460.2486

Aleksander Katai is having a huge year for Chicago, despite it occuring amid yet another frustrating season for an organization that hasn’t gotten much right in the last five seasons. But at only 28 years old there is hope Katai, along with some much needed defensive reinforcements, could be at the center of a Chicago resurgence in 2020.

#4 - Gary Mackay-Steven, New York City, 0.543 xG
Assisted by: Maxi Moralez
Keeper: Maxime Crepeau
Result - Saved


This shot is categorized as being saved by Crepeau. But it’s also a goal. Technically, somehow, Mackay-Steven is awarded two shots here. Best guess? The coder saw his first touch come off of Crepeau and credit that as one shot/save and then when Mackay keeps running and sort of picks up the rebound off of Crepeau and lifts it over for a second shot/goal. I’ve watched this a few dozen times and I can’t say I’d ever have coded it as such, but let’s persist onwards. It’s a bit difficult to see, but I want to focus on what happens before the goal and what leads to the shot. I almost removed it from eligibility, but it’s a good little clip and worth talking about.

The pass by Maxi Moralez is just so beautiful here. The clip isn’t quite long enough as you miss a bit of the nice combination and movement here by Tony Rocha, Alexandru Mitrita and Moralez, but it’s followed by a little body faint and head direction which completely fools his defender (and Doniel Henry, but we’ll get to that in a second) and it’s followed by a pass across his body into an empty lane.

I’m honestly not sure what Henry is thinking as he completely vacates defensive space milliseconds before this pass is made. He looks like he’s trying to jump a passing lane that is already occupied and doesn’t seem like he really knows where his teammates are. However, if you track the path of the ball it’s not as if it’s squarely in Henry’s “area of opportunity”. I don’t want to place all the blame on him because it’s possible that Mackay-Steven still gets a foot on this to create a shot.

The weirdest thing about this is Maxime Crepeau, who just absolutely and totally flubs this save. He’s had a pretty solid season for Vancouver despite basically being on the firing line every week, but it’s a bit reminiscent of the Dan Kennedy years for Chivas where from 2011-2014 he averaged over 150 shots faced annually. But considering the circumstances you do expect a bit more from him here, despite the fact he does make the initial “save”.

The shot itself from Mackay-Steven isn’t anything great. The best thing going for him is the run through the defensive line. He puts just enough english on the shot and with no help for Crepeau there isn’t any other hope.

One other sneaky thing about this shot is that this happens all of nine yards from the goal line. It feels much farther out in my minds eye, but watching where the shot happens, it’s just outside the six yard box. That specific fact helps put it into perspective when we consider the high xG value.

#3 - Micheal Azira, Chicago Fire, 0.607 xG
Assisted by: Alexsandar Katai
Keeper: Eloy Room
Result: Saved


This pass probably should have been cleared, but it’s a(nother) beauty from Katai. It pulls both defenders away from goal and leaves Michael Azira wide open at the front post. A nice easy headed pass from Przemyslaw Frankowski creates a Thanksgiving gravy of an opportunity.

 I know, this is unlike me. Maybe I’m getting soft after taking time off. Maybe it’s me giving Chicago a pass because their offense is borderline great at times and if they had a defense they’re probably a playoff team. Maybe it’s that it’s the first day of school and I’m sentimental.

Whatever the reason, and while, yes, I generally disapprove of these types of decisions in the final third situations, it works out really well. 

One thing that stands out is that Katai didn’t have a lot of options here. It’s possible that he had a pass outlet to Dax McCarty, but really everyone from his two nearby teammates to Francisco Calvo at the top of the box was marked up. This was a rare opportunity that didn’t have a lot of alternative options.

Despite a lot of negativity around the team, Chicago has a nice core of players in their prime and it’s not outside the realm of possibility that with a few moves in the offseason this is a team that quietly moves into position for a 2020 playoff run.

#2 - Daniel Royer, New York Red Bulls, 0.711 xG
Keeper: Tim Howard
Result: Blocked

Daniel Royer has been something special over the last few months with the Red Bulls. Since the first weekend in June, he’s been fourth in Major League Soccer in expected goals and tied for eighth in actual goals.

The run through the box on this shot, much like Nikolic above, was really good. It's a bit of an outside to inside move that with a short burst gives him good positioning on his defender. Unfortunately he’s just not able to turn his hips on the shot like we would expect, opting to try to hit it with the outside of his right foot.

The real takeaway is that creating these types of situations, despite the outcome against Colorado, is going to yield to more positive situations for the Red Bulls and their fans, who I feel need something positive to build off of right now.

#1 - Daniel Salloi, Sporting Kansas City, 0.81 xG
Assisted By: Graham Zusi
Keeper: Joe Willis
Result: Crossbar

If I showed you this GIF to someone and told that person the team in possession was one of the worst teams in the Western Conference, I don’t feel they would believe me. I have trouble with the narrative that SKC has no bite and they are lacking in the final third, and this is a great example why.

They move the ball around with ease and open space up on the right side of the field as if they were performing surgery. It was one of the most beautiful attacking buildups this weekend, most of which revolved around ball movement INSIDE the coveted area of zone 14.

The overlapping run by Graham Zusi is such trade mark by Zusi at this stage, especially with Johnny Russell tucked so far in the middle of the field. Zusi gets into the 18 and then lasers a beautiful ball across the face of goal, which Benny Feilhaber somehow dances around, leaving Salloi to get a boot on it. Somehow, and once more it’s difficult to tell exactly how, he just gets a bit under it and ricochets the ball off the top post. You can see how stunned (and probably a bit frustrated) Graham Zusi is off to the right after it drops behind the bar for a goal kick.

It’s brilliant, the numbers tell us it was brilliant and it just doesn’t come off. Really it’s kind of Daniel Salloi’s season in the form of a GIF. The young Hungarian attacker has put up pretty good underlying numbers despite being hampered by injuries this year, and yet, he has zero goals and zero assists to show for it.

Part of this, for what it’s worth, is simply bad luck. I try and avoid saying that on this article because A) I know a lot of coaches don’t like saying it and it’s not how players train. It’s all within your own ability to create, influence and make a play. Also B) it becomes a bit of a cliche and a throw away bit of lazy analysis. It people turn off when they hear it.

That said, I look at his xPlace (negative 2.6) and I look at his G-xG (his full xG amount) and I think this is all just bad luck. Look, call it unlucky finishing or whatever you wish to call it, he’s putting shots on frame which usually go in. Hopefully he keeps getting chances because they’ll start going in eventually.

Still, it’s hard to watch this one and not blame Salloi. He’s got an open net beckoning him. It’s sad to see this play and how it turns out for him (and SKC) knowing the type of season he and the team have had, but then again it’s great to see that despite an awful run of luck the 23-year old looks to be trending positively and is improving his game, according to the underlying numbers.

Now let’s take a look at the “Lofy Expectations,” the goal last week that had the lowest xG value.

Lofty Expectations: Mason Toye, Minnesota United, 0.023 xG
Assisted By: Darwin Quintero
Keeper: Pablo Sisniega
Result: Goal

Over the last two seasons, about 900 MLS minutes, Mason Toye has scored three goals on eight attempted shots with his left foot. As Matt Doyle pointed on Sunday night during the MLS weekend recap, the young man is actually right footed.

If he wasn’t already, these two goals this past weekend against the best defense in MLS put him on the launch pad for his campaign for a USMNT call up. Of course twitter became abuzz, but I did what I always do, I go to try and bring some rationality to everything. After all, while the goal above was legit fire, it was also yet another low percentage shot that he has a tendency to take, even while his teammate made a darting run into the box.

But take a look at Mason Toye’s numbers this season compared to his USMNT competition in MLS:

Zardes is much worse than I expected.

What about Jeremy Ebobisse? He’s promising too. That should be a good baseline...

Wow, ugh. This isn’t bad but, not what I expected either. What about Jozy Altidore?

Well, he’s not better than Jozy, but that’s not surprising. Right? Right? RIGHT? Okay, settle down. Again, we’re 900 minutes into his career and while he has a lot of tools, his touch is interesting, and makes smart runs, we’re still watching him develop both as a human and as a player.

It’s always exciting to watch this sort of thing develop. Despite the hype there is some really positive indicators in Toye’s promising start. Which, again, is really exciting for a 20-year old who can’t even legally have his first alcoholic drink until next month.

I don’t think it changes much, as he was already on the radar, but I do hope this game solidified that he’ll be in the hearts and minds of Berhalter’s staff in the future. Which is a good thing because aside from the fact it went in the net, that goal was mostly terrible. I mean, he did choose to take a 30 yard shot rather than playing Darwin Quintero through for a one-on-one with the keeper. I can’t just *let* that go.